To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what is his estimate of the additional number of local government employees employed to process the community charge in Wales.
I have made no such estimate, but I greatly welcome the announcement that the Audit Commission is to undertake a study into the management of charging authorities. I will carefully review the results as they apply to Welsh authorities.
Ministers are remarkably ignorant about many aspects of the impact of the poll tax. I hope that the review will, among other things, identify the need to relieve the burden on thousands of home owners in terraced houses in our communities, who receive no benefit and do not live in areas where the authorities are overcharging on poll tax, but who nevertheless face bills twice as big as the old rates.
We should look at the ways of improving the community charge, and we are doing that. As to the administration of the community charge, Welsh local authorities have done better than the original provision allowed. I believe that £25 million was allowed against collection costs, but only £19 million has been spent, which is a very good result. As to the future, of course we shall find ways of improving the community charge. Labour is still in utter confusion about its alternative.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a bit of a cheek for Labour Members to criticise the community charge when it has a different policy every day of the week? One moment they suggest a roof tax, which would be disastrous, and this week they suggest a return to the old unfair rating system. Should not the Opposition keep silent until they decide what they want?
I assure my hon. Friend that whatever may be my responsibilities, I would not begin to countenance a return to the unjust domestic rating system, which I understand Labour Members are considering reintroducing. It was an iniquitous system, but it has gone now—and good riddance to it.
To ask the Secretary of State for Wales when he intends to meet representatives of local authorities in Wales; and whether he will discuss the community charge.
I met representatives of the Assembly of Welsh Counties and the Council of Welsh Districts in the forum of the Welsh Consultative Council on Local Government Finance last week, when the community charge was among the issues raised.
Does not the Secretary of State accept that whatever the Audit Commission does or does not do, the high cost of collecting the poll tax in Wales has now risen to £7 per head? That is a direct result of the lack of resources devoted by the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor to local councils in Wales to help cope with the burden of the poll tax. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that in the current negotiations with local authorities, he will give them enough money to enable them to sort out their problems?
I understand that the hon. Gentleman is known as an expert on such issues. He may be a self-appointed expert, but let that not take anything away from him. The hon. Gentleman could not have been listening when I replied to the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands). A collection cost of £7 per head is considerably below that allowed for in the settlement. An allowance of £25·6 million was made for the cost of collection. As it happens——
The hon. Gentleman says that it was not enough. As it happens, local authorities underspent that provision.
Oh yes they have. [Hon Members: "Oh no they haven't."] If the hon. Gentleman will consult his colleagues, he will find that Welsh local authorities spent £19·8 million. He might not think that that is an underspend, but he must be the only right hon. or hon. Member who does not.